Walking the walk: Inspirational leader with cerebral palsy treks four rounds of Phoenix Open with Jon Rahm

D.J. Gregory is entering his 13th consecutive season of walking every hole at every PGA Tour event throughout the year. (Photo by Michael Adamucci/Getty Images)

SCOTTSDALE – Born 10 weeks premature, D.J. Gregory has had 11 surgeries in his lifetime: five on his legs and six on his eyes. One of those involved having the abductor muscles in his legs cut, leaving Gregory unable to balance.

As a result, he went from crawling on his stomach around the house as a child to using a walker, then to using two canes. Such is the life of someone with cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture.

Now in his early 40s, Gregory needs just one cane, and it gets a lot of use.

He is entering his 13th consecutive season of walking every hole at every PGA Tour event throughout the year. This past weekend’s Waste Management Open at TPC Scottsdale was his latest stop. Gregory was paired with former Arizona State star Jon Rahm, who in only his fifth season as a professional has climbed to third in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy.

Gregory said he started walking with Tour players because he wanted to get to know the golfers beyond just their results and statistics.

“I went to my first PGA Tour event when I was 12, and I loved it,” Gregory said. “I decided, ‘What would it be like to go to every tournament? Get to know the players on a more personal level other than their scorecards and their stats, and then accomplish the personal challenge of walking every hole at every event?'”

Gregory always has been a self-described sports fanatic, but golf is his favorite sport because anyone can play it, he said. His enthusiasm for the game hardly went unnoticed, even when he was still just a fan, which is how he got started on his current path.

“In 2008, the PGA Tour allowed me to (walk every hole at every tournament),” Gregory said. “They assigned a different player for me to follow each week, and I would do a blog about each player at each tournament for the week.”

Over a decade later, Gregory is still following a player every week, walking all 18 holes with his partner during every round of the tournament that week.

Gregory connected quickly with Rahm, who wants to partner with him at more events.

“He reminds me a lot of what Kobe (Bryant) would talk about, we should be trying to be the best version of ourselves,” Rahm said, referencing the basketball legend, who died Jan. 26. “A lot of people won’t even walk 18 holes, and he has a hard time walking, and he walks all 18 of them in every single golf course, every single week of a year. It’s unbelievable. I see him everywhere.

Jon Rahm, an Arizona State product, enjoyed having D.J. Gregory follow him at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and he hopes to partner with Gregory again and assist his Walking for Kids Foundation. (Photo by Brady Klain/Cronkite News)

“This year I asked him to see if we could help him out for more than one tournament, just because I really believe in what he does. It’s quite unique with how many people he’s helping out.”

Gregory’s consistency in overcoming his personal adversity every week serves as inspiration on its own merit. But since Gregory began walking courses, he’s vastly expanded his platform and means for inspiring others, starting with a book he wrote that was published in 2009.

“I wrote a book called ‘Walking With Friends: An Inspirational Year on the PGA Tour,'” Gregory said. “Because I had such positive responses from tournaments, fans and players, I decided ‘What could I do to inspire and motivate others?’ And that’s how I decided to start the Walking for Kids Foundation.

“We raise money for kids with special needs, and so each week I have a different player that will make a donation to my foundation, and I walk the course to support them.”

The foundation is now in its 11th year, Gregory said, and it has become a staple of the PGA Tour.

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Although Rahm wanted to support Gregory’s charitable efforts because of his passion for the cause, it would be hard to blame him if he hoped Gregory might also serve as a bit of good luck charm as he did for the golfer he walked with at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in 2019 – Rickie Fowler.

“Rickie Fowler’s one of my best friends out here” on the Tour, Gregory said. “We were paired with Rickie the last two days (of last year’s tournament), and watching Rickie win in person – for me, that was really special. It was awesome to see.”

Fowler remembers the weekend just as fondly as Gregory, and agreed that they’ve formed a bond since Fowler turned professional a decade ago – about the same time Gregory’s book was published and shortly before his charity was founded.

“He’s a good friend of ours,” Fowler said. “It’s always fun to have him around. We take him anytime he doesn’t have someone to maybe walk with, and we at least do a couple weeks a year where he’s walking with us. Obviously, a great friend and, like I said, he’s a big supporter of us as we are of him … everyone loves D.J.”

Rahm didn’t quite find the same fortune as Fowler did last February, but the Spaniard earned a top-10 finish for a second straight year at his adopted hometown’s tournament. In fact, tying for ninth place marks his highest finish at TPC Scottsdale as a professional. Maybe Gregory’s presence was good luck, after all.

“I wish I could’ve made more birdies for his foundation (to prompt additional donations). I gave myself good chances. I felt like I’m missing a lot of putts on purpose,” Rahm said, laughing. “It is what it is; it’s great. He’s a good friend of mine. We get along great, and it’s a great feeling to be able to do this for him.

“It’s a worthy cause. It’s something else to play for, which is always nice… When you’re donating for a good cause, it’s always a special feeling. I’m really lucky to be 25 years-old and do what I love for a living, and luckily earn more than I need to to live my life.

“So, if I can share that with other people that can actually make a difference in this world – and hopefully at some point start making my own difference – I’m going to do it. So, it’s nice to have somebody like D.J. focusing on golf and doing what he does.”

For Gregory, he cherishes the time spent and bonds formed with golfers at the highest level. As someone who started playing when he was 9-years old with a “self-taught” golf swing, he can certainly appreciate what he’s watching.

However, he feels that he has a message to spread beyond just the brotherhood of the PGA Tour, one he is delivering to ordinary and similarly challenged people in all walks of life.

“I’m a big believer that everybody has a goal and a dream,” Gregory said. “It doesn’t matter if you need help with your daily activities, if you’re confined to a wheelchair, it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, everybody has a goal and a dream, and everybody should be given the opportunity to achieve their goals and dreams. Any little thing I can do to help, I will be there.”

Through tiring weeks and challenging days, Gregory makes it known that he’ll always find fulfillment in the work he does helping others.

“Even on those hard days, when I see where the money that my foundation raises, and where it goes to and some of the kids that it helps, that’s what makes it all worth it,” Gregory said. “That’s what makes those long days and those early wake-up calls totally worth it.

“They inspire me more than they’ll ever know.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix